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Talking behind your back

Jenn's main blog

Talking behind your back

Jenn Shallvey

1. How often in a day do you talk about other people, whether public figures, strangers or friends?

2. What percentage of the content of these conversations is considered kind, positive or constructively helpful?

3. Would you be prepared to say what you say about a person when not in their presence directly to them when in their presence?

An ideal response to question one is frequently. Yes we live in a community and I believe that to speak of others is how we also stay connected.

The realistic response to question two is likely less than you and I would like.

The last question may challenge us to have authentic and real conversations.  

I ask these questions because I am aware of this pattern of conversational behaviour in both myself and others.  Over the years in my work as a coach I frequently invite others to ‘catch yourself thinking’.   My intention with this self-awareness increasing process is to consciously notice how our thoughts precede our behaviours and expression.   Add to this effective feedback applied to self and others where a key distinction is to separate assumption and opinion from observable and known facts and truths.

We frequently think our assumptions and opinions are the truth.

Time for a change

Taking this thinking and feedback into context I personally wish to go deeper to shift the thoughts more towards positive and constructive.  As a conscious experiment of sorts, I decided that I would not think nor speak badly nor negatively about other people. I would start with observation and then change where needed.  Such a seemingly simple and innocent intention.

What I notice when I observe conversational behaviour is how easy it is to get caught up in negative conversations.  At times we can be lead down a path of gossip about another person even amongst other like minded people.

If we are being a good listener then we also tend to give people a lot of air time. Sometimes people just need to vent or get something off their chest. I can see the value of this process within certain boundaries.  Sometimes though this open ended invitation to whinge and complain is too much.   

It is easy to whinge or complain

It seems far more challenging to provide constructive and helpful input or feedback.  A lot of things in life push our buttons - from small scale personal to large scale societal. It is easy to be frustrated and take it out on the next person that comes in our firing line.  Ready and armed with a rant and off we go.  Then we stop and realise that we let emotions take hold and control the reins. Whoops.  Getting excited about things that challenge our values is part of being human, right? It is how we respond and act though that makes the difference. 

Other people and your intent

So it takes a deeper more resolute intent to not do this. To truly 100% live and breathe as someone who only speaks well of others (be constructive) or as is said say nothing at all takes massive awareness, practice and resilience.  By awareness I mean being in that moment aware what your thinking is doing and which track you are going down.  

This awareness starts immediately with how you think of another person.  When that person’s name is mentioned your first thought sets you up. So unless you can change that thought then you are going down a slippery slope.  This is easy for people you like and enjoy company of or who share the same values as you. But what about those whom you dislike, do not have anything in common with or just have bad vibes about.  Not so easy.

Then if you are in conversation with someone who also feels the same way you do about another it is very easy to collude into a spiral of negativity. By this I mean the trade off of comments comparing notes and justifying your view of the person. Mostly it is behaviour that gets you into a state. Then you attribute this behaviour to this person. You judge. Too late once you do this. Then if another is conversing with you it is a negative collaborative conversation, a collusion of sorts. The person you talk about isn’t even in the room or present to be able to defend their self.

Permission to change the conversation

So I have been trying to step out of these types of conversations. I am trying to stop them before they happen. I made a concerted effort to stop. Though I admit I am still working on it.

I gave my husband and kids permission to tell me when I do. Having your 18 and 14 year old kids pull you up for habitual conversations is refreshing and eyeopening.  I also may be heard saying comments like “is what you are going to talk about now helpful or constructive?” or “I know you want to vent about this person but how is what you are going to say help the situation?” or “If this conversation is going where I think it is I wonder if it is possible to change the way we talk about this person?”.  I generally am met with amusement and agreement to change the direction of our conversation.

A case in point

However not all responses are met with equal receptivity.  A case in point is one of my more recent experiences.  I know a person who is not a friend but someone that I bump into on a fairly regular basis.  I am cordial and friendly.  What I noticed since meeting this person is that many of the conversations veer off into the negative or gossip. The conversations are about what is wrong in the world, other people and life being hard. A lot of blame, finger pointing and annoyance.   I usually am on the receiving end of a series of complaints, glass half empty views of the world.  Being polite and friendly I often have listened. However over time it wears me down.

The tipping point of negativity

One day I engaged in a conversation so filled with negativity I could not take it. It was like a tipping point.  This person was complaining vociferously about another person. It was a blame and victim dance filled with high emotion.  I felt like I was the one being attacked as this person animatedly pointed fingers at me and explained angrily what got this person so upset.  Maybe my complicity was allowing me to be proxy for the person squared in the target of the other’s mind.  

So what did I do? I politely (well in my view I was polite) indicated that I did not wish to participate in this particular conversation topic.  As this was a new unexpected behaviour from me, my choice of statement and behaviour was quickly met with resistance.  Of course it would be. The pattern to date was reinforced that I listened to the complaints, in effect agreeing.  However in my mind I was now asking this person to respect me and my choice of what I wanted to be engaged or not engaged in.

Assertion vs resistance

Not prepared to back down from what now seemed like a courageous attempt to change the direction of our chat, I repeated myself in a non emotional and assertive manner.   More resistance and defensiveness came firing back to me with an added element of visible anger.   I was not getting very far with this new assertion.  There was no willingness at all to listen to my request.  I explained whilst I wanted to continue our conversation I did not want to continue with this particular topic and direction. 

The end result was that this person took it personally. This person ignored me from then on even though I would still smile and say hi when passing by. Finally I got a response directly declaring that this person was never speaking to me again. I was also told in no uncertain terms what a rude person this person thought I was etc.  Add to this the now persistent glares and scowls directed at me when we pass by in the street. 

On one hand...

On the surface it appears I was not successful in my assertion. Yet on a deeper level I chose to be aligned with my values and my commitment to speak constructively about others.  I realise that I also allowed the pattern of collusion to develop to give the impression that I wanted to whinge and complain. In the future I will be clearer earlier about such conversations.

But there is more

Even deeper is the test of me to define my boundaries and choose the energy of the people I want to associate with. This is not about judgement but discernment.  Compared to other situations that people I know encounter this may seem mild. There is nothing physical nor violent. So to assert a request for respect should be easy, right? 

Wrong!  I am human just like you. So even though I stood up for respect, I later doubted my actions.  Why? Because for a moment I believed what was said about me.  I then criticised myself thinking I should be more kind, compassionate, caring etc.    Yet I asked this person to respect me and this person did not. It is that simple.

We serve as mirrors of behaviour

Then I realised that when I said what I said I held up a mirror for the first time for this person to see what the person is becoming.  The person now glares at me because this person can no longer pretend these problems are about everyone else. I showed that the person is part of the problem being complained about. Yet this is not seen easily. Instead this person chooses to be consumed by the anger inside. There is no desire to listen.  This person is being the victim. It is all about everyone else.  I am simply another person added to the list of people that are terrible to this person.  This person expects this from others and therefore claims it.

It's about respect

This situation and any where we speak of others is not about being right or wrong. No. It is about respect.  When we talk about others behind their back without the willingness to speak directly to the person then we are not respectful. When we complain and direct our inner anger onto others we are not respectful.

But more so when we feel guilty or bad about asserting our right to be respected then we are not respectful of our self.

Just because we say we will do something does not mean it is easy. Habits and old behaviours are reinforced by the world around us. When we choose to change then others will experience the change too.  All I can say is keep remembering why you are choosing the new behaviour and stay committed, true to self and positive.